Friday, 31 October 2008

And Then There Were Five...

I very rarely root for more than two or three players in a tournament, but for once I'm backing all of the remaining field in Paris.

Federer and Nadal have withdrawn from their respective quarter final matches due to injuries, and in doing so have opened up the draw in a pleasantly surprising way.

Whenever the top seeds aren't around it usually means we're in for something of an anti climax (think Hamburg 2005), with the victor usually being crowned by default: on the basis of being marginally better than everyone else.

But I've backed all of the remaining players in Paris at one time or another, mostly because of their undeniable talent and underachievement. Out of the remaining five, only Tsonga is not a top tenner, although he's already proven he's capable of beating the very best.

  • Davydenko - He's had a troublesome year with the betting investigation but still managed to win big in Miami; OK Federer and Djokovic weren't in the mix, but he comprehensively outplayed everyone else, including deserved wins over Roddick and Nadal. He's not everybody's cup of tea and not the most inspiring or flamboyant of players, but there can be no doubting his superb consistency (top tenner since June 2005), fitness (at times it seems he almost prefers to win in five sets rather than three) and aggressive style of play. I really hope there's no long term damage incurred by the ATP proceedings and that he returns to form in 2009. A title here wouldn't hurt that cause.
  • Nalbandian - Profiled previously.
  • Tsonga - Profiled here.
  • Blake - He can sometimes appear very one dimensional in his style of play, and despite his great run in 2006, I had him pegged as someone who wouldn't last long in the top ten. He appeared to me to have peaked with a fairly limited set of tools and would cave in mentally more often than not. He's proved me wrong, mostly because of his supreme athleticism and explosive style of play. He often hits outrageous winners, and possesses groundstrokes flatter than anyone in the top ten. I'm sometimes surprised why such an explosive player has such a tame serve, but put simply he's too good not to have won a Masters shield at least once, and he doesn't have much time left.
  • Roddick - Over the last two years Roddick has added considerable depth to his game, particularly to that backhand and net play. With the emergence of Djokovic last year, I thought it was all over for him at the highest levels of the sport. But he then beat Nadal and Djokovic en route to a title in Dubai this year. He's still not at the level of the top four and probably never will be, but like Blake deserves more wins at this level.
I'd still have preferred the victor to have had to face one or two of the top three, but if nothing else, the confidence gained by winning here may turn him into someone more capable of contending effectively with the top four - and that can only be a good thing.

Blake image by chascow

Sunday, 26 October 2008

PR Pundit Required.Please Inspire Within...

What should have been two mouth watering match ups this weekend ended up being largely one sided affairs. Still it was good to see Federer bag his third title of the year in Basel (also his third consecutive here), while Ivanovic confirmed that her semi final appearance in Zurich was no flash in the pan: she beat Zvonerava to claim the title in Linz.

Great as this is for them, I want to focus on one of the runners-up.

Nalbandian is in the eyes of many(myself included), the most talented player never to have won a Slam. I don't think the ATP make any awards in that category, but in any case that is not, should not be the kind of epitaph Nalbandian is remembered by when he eventually calls it a day.

And therein lies the problem: what baffles me, bothers me most about Nalbandian isn't his alarmingly consistent inconsistency, nor lets say, his rather 'suspect' fitness regime. What really gets to me is how comfortable he sometimes appears, with it all slipping away.

His semi final loss at Queens this year (6-1,6-0 to Djokovic) made me wonder why he turned up. As great a player as Djokovic is, there's no way I can rationalise that scoreline in my mind without thinking that Nalbandian was injured, ill or so mentally out of sorts that he simply shouldn't be on court.

There's three ways that most players cope with not being able to perform to their expectations:

  • They break racquets, foulmouth the umpire, smack tennis balls out of the arena: anything to get them out of the rut.
  • They internalise their anger and smoulder as they die a slow brooding death on court.
  • They cut a defeated figure and radiate negativity.
Only the first of these is really acceptable as it allows one to turn a negative into a positive. But there's also a fourth vehicle used by a minority of players in which they simply disengage - stop caring. What makes this perhaps the worst possible response is its neutrality. In the cases above, however negative, the player is at least conveying their frustration, showing everybody just how badly they want to turn this around.

This apathetic response may have been acceptable if Nalbandian were a player ranked outside of the top 50 facing a 6-2, 5-1 scoreline with Federer serving for the match.

But this is a man who's beaten Federer 8 times (ok, 4 of those were circa 2002-2003, but how many other players can boast that record) and been to at least the semis of all four slams.

He's got one of the best double handed backhands in the world, and moves so amazingly (almost freakishly) well that Tennis Magazine described it as 'materialising next to the ball'.

Anyway this is all sounding far too ominous; Nalbandian may have an attitude problem, but I suspect theres also something else at play, something a little easier to fix. I get the feeling he's sometimes simply unaware of just how poor his body language can get at times, and doesn't always understand how damaging this can be to his public persona. I don't think he's consciously trying to disengage with anyone, least of all his fans but he certainly wasn't winning any new ones when he went off court at Queens that day.

His loss to Federer this weekend wasn't his best performance but not his worst either. Reaching the finals here and his recent win in Stockholm suggest he is still serious about his tennis so maybe all he needs is a PR makeover. Some people just aren't great presenters - and besides PR isn't his thing, hitting backhands is.


Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Three Becomes Four...

Quite a bit happened this weekend - Venus finally won her second title of the year at Zurich - OK, the other one was Wimbledon but hey! Ivanovic finally managed to put in the convincing, worthy performance that's been eluding her since winning Roland Garros and Murray took his second Masters title of the year at Madrid, beating Federer in the process.

Ivanovic first: I've been highly critical of Ivanovic, but unless I'm mistaken, I actually saw the beginnings of a Plan-B at Zurich. Over the course of the last year, she's often looked troubled when balls she just hit very hard began coming back at her. Unless she was able to dominate opponents with her famous inside-out forehand, she appeared confused, unsure what to do next - unforced errors would soon follow, particularly from that overused forehand.

She was more content to trade at medium pace in Zurich, not trying to finish the point off too soon and not always trying to set herself up with an inside out forehand. Although she lost to Venus (no disgrace there), she now has more raw materials to work with - no one expects her to turn into Justine Henin, but its nice to see she's trying something different.

For me, Venus Williams' performance was unremarkable. That's not meant to be a derogatory comment. To me, a Williams firing on 3 out of 4 cylinders should be able to beat around 90% of the world's top players. She was playing better than that, so while I was glad to see her win, I couldn't help feeling it was long overdue.

Murray was for me the biggest story this weekend. Just how big this is for British Tennis should not be underestimated. Both Henman
and Rusedski also got to #4 in the world, and they both also won a Masters title in Paris, but their rise was less meteoric and results generally very mixed.

Since Wimbledon, Murray has raised his game to the point that it is
now realistic to speak of a top 4. There was a lot of talk of Murray's talent and promise prior to Wimbledon, but there were also concerns regarding fitness and temperament. His form at the time suggested that he should be in the top ten, but could quite easily be derailed. On the basis of the last few months however, it would not be premature to speak of him winning a Slam in the near future.

There are still a couple of things to consider though:

  • He remains unproven on clay and has admitted to it being his worst surface on several occasions - if he is to be grouped with the top 3 he needs to be able to perform at least as well as Djokovic who regularly makes the semis at clay court majors, tending to go out to either Federer or Nadal.
  • The last three months have been just dandy. If he suffers some slippage in his form, how will he handle it? Will a Murray at 75% still be effective? Djokovic is going through something like that right now; his form is quite unlike it was in January but is still able to deliver a convincing performance in any tournament he enters.
Here's a very unscientific breakdown of where I think the top four stand (or in Murray's case should stand) in relation to one another on the different surfaces. A hyphen separating players represents roughly equivalent ability. Commas indicate a descending order of precedence. You get the idea.

Hard: Djokovic-Federer-Murray, Nadal
Clay: Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray
Grass: Federer, Nadal, Djokovic-Murray

Ivanovic image by Franz88 under licence
Murray image by chascow


Saturday, 18 October 2008

Marathon Man...

Gilles Simon did the unthinkable today. He defeated Rafael Nadal 6-3, 5-7, 6-7(6) in front of an all-Spanish crowd in Madrid in a gruelling encounter that lasted 3 hours and 22 min.

What makes this all the more surprising is that Nadal is normally expected to come through tough, physical matches like this and if not, then you certainly wouldn't expect the 140lb Simon to be the one to get the better of him.

What Simon does have in spades though is endurance. He's built more like a marathon runner and his superb consistency gives him the ability to push opponents to the limit. Not that he's a grinder either - he's an aggressive player who takes the ball quite early and knows when to go for winners. He also appears to have the knack of producing winners on the run - something even the very best sometimes struggle with. His game reminds me of Paul Henri Mathieu minus the reckless nature.

Before today I thought of Simon as a journeyman who happened to be on a good run; he didn't to me, appear to have any special weapons - just a good all round game. His stature also made me wonder if he'd ever really be able to trouble the big guns.

I still have my doubts, but he certainly appears to be deserving of a top ten position. His victory today was made possible by the way in which he gradually eroded Nadal's confidence and got him to play the match on his own terms. By the last set Nadal was not delivering the heavy high bouncing shots we normally associate with him and was noticeably less aggressive. A lot has been written on the improvements that Nadal has made to his hard court play, but its fair to say he reverted back to his form of about two years ago when aggressive players like Blake and Youzhny were getting the better of him.

In the other semi final, Murray got the better of Federer again 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 thereby avenging his US Open final loss last month.
The head to head between them now stands at 3-2 in Murray's favour.

Much has been made of Murray's great record against Federer here in the UK, but I've always thought that the two prior victories he had against him were made possible by Federer's poor form: I saw the match in Cincinnati two years ago and have a vague recollection of Federer seething at his inability to get a ball in court. As for Dubai, we all know just how below par
Federer has been on hard courts this year (prior to the US Open of course) and Dubai was no exception.

I'm no apologist for Federer, some of whom seem to attribute every loss he has on 'poor form', or (as has been the case this year) mono. But I do think Murray's interests would be better served if due recognition were given to the factors that played a part in those wins. Due allowance ought to be given to Murray too for his US Open loss: he was in his first Slam final facing a resurgent Federer - hardly surprising that he came slightly unstuck.

What makes today's win special for me, is that it was on an equal footing. Whatever was troubling Federer prior to the US Open now looks to be well and truly behind him.
Murray too, has been a different class of player since Wimbledon with a faster serve and more aggressive play (something I've been wanting to see in his game for ages), and with the experience gained at that US Open final was better equipped to cope with whatever Federer brought to the table
The big difference from the US Open though, was Murray's serve which he used to great effect particularly in the last set.

I sincerely hope that Simon has enough left in the tank to make tomorrow's final a quality encounter; it'll be impressive if he even turns up.

Simon image by chascow


Thursday, 16 October 2008

A Match Too Far II...

Nobody beats Flavia Pennetta six times in a row - she finally stopped the rot by beating Jelena Jankovic for the first time, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 in Zurich today, and thereby ended the Serbians incredible run that has seen her claim three straight titles.

It was in some ways befitting that Pennetta should be the one to put a stop to Jankovic's winning ways; she' d played her three times already this year and although they were all straight sets losses, you could sense she was gaining some ground on each meeting. In their last match at Moscow particularly, it was really only Jankovic's psychological advantage that gave her the upper hand.

Jankovic has simply been exceptional this year. She's often been unfairly maligned in my opinion, for regaining the #1 ranking despite never having won a slam. But to be honest, given the current state of the women's game, it probably won't be too long before that changes. Yes, Sharapova and the Williams Sisters are the better calibre players, but if others are injured or unwilling to play the amount of tennis the #1 ranking demands, it'll only be a matter of time before someone else takes it on (If it weren't Jankovic, it'd be someone less deserving and I guarantee you they wouldn't have put in the court miles that the Serbian has).

She's always been a great mover possessing probably the best defence in the women's game, always forcing her opponents to play one extra shot. Her trademark backhand down the line winner is perhaps one of the best shots in women's tennis.
Since reaching her first US Open final she also now appears to be putting right what many feel were her two main weaknesses: Her poor serve and her inability or unwillingnesss to put balls away early on during rallies; even in the face of easy opportunities, she'd often elect to play to her natural counterpunching tendency. Not any more.

That about sums up what she's doing right - here's what I think she could improve:

  • Play less tournaments: Someone seriously needs to draw her attention to how thin she's spreading herself and of the inevitable consequences thereof, because she just doesn't appear to get it - I find this all the more surprising as she burnt herself out last year too, and was a shell of her normal self in the Season Ending Championships.
  • Dispense with the on court 'distractions': Put simply she's more than capable of winning without all the additional baggage she sometimes brings to matches. I try not to personalise on this blog, but all the complaining about Venus taking an excessive amount of time between points during their recent match in Stuttgart (which culminated in Jankovic's coach taking out a stopwatch) overshadowed an otherwise quality encounter, and was a little too much to stomach.
Anyway, Jankovic's departure has opened up an opportunity for Ivanovic to attempt, once again to recapture the form we all know she's capable of. I really do hope she can do it this time - it will set her up well of the Season Ending Championships.

Pennetta image by adisetiawan distributed under licence


Monday, 13 October 2008

A Match Too Far...

Ok so I got my Kremlin Cup prediction completely wrong this weekend - Santoro didn't even make it to the final and Safin lost to the world #71, Igor Kunitsyn. I didn't see the match but from what I can gather, Safin didn't lose this by self destructing in a way thats become all too familiar. He played solid but not spectacular tennis, but in the end wasn't good enough to overpower Kunitsyn who soaked up everything thrown at him.
As disappointing as the loss is, it is perhaps more worrying that Safin has incurred a shoulder injury that's caused him to pull out of Madrid. I mean as important as it is to win in your home town, Moscow should in all seriousness, have been treated as a ramp up to Madrid: Losing to an undistinguished opponent in Moscow is disappointing, but being prevented from competing in Madrid strikes me as something of a double whammy - oh well, let's hope the shoulder is ready in time for Paris.

On another note, there was something noticeably different about the way Djokovic and Federer came across in their Madrid build-up interviews with Sky today.
Federer's answers all seemed to revolve around the need to rest and how he even considered taking the rest of the year off, whilst Djokovic's focus was largely on the improvements he has to make in his fitness and net game.
Nothing wrong with either of those in principle - Federer, we all know has had his problems with mono earlier on this year and has seemed troubled (especially on hard courts) thoughout the season, whilst Djokovic has not been able to keep up the form that led him to his first Slam and two further Masters titles this year.

I just found them both uncharacteristically guarded and significantly less confident than I've come to expect: almost to the point of preparing us for a potential early exit. I find this all the more surprising since they must both know they are potential winners.
Nadal has had a great year, but there comes a point when your body just won't allow you to give your best; plus we all know he's been overpowered before on a fast indoor court.
Granted, Federer and Djokovic have both had their troubles this year, and there's plenty of young upstarts in the mix who must give almost anyone cause for concern (anyone who saw Gulbis versus Nadal today will know what I mean), but that has never previously appeared to dent their confidence in this way.

Maybe however, their concerns about form and injury are justified, and are right on the money in having slightly lowered expectations - besides what do I know? I can't even predict a Safin match.

Djokovic image by Toga

Friday, 10 October 2008

Conquering Demons...

Marat Safin has just defeated Nikolay Davydenko 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 in the quarter finals of the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. He will now play Mischa Zverev (ranked 98) while the other semi final will be contested between Fabrice 'The Magician' Santoro and Igor Kunitsyn (ranked 71).

Were it not for Santoro's 7-2 head to head against him, this should have been a straightforward proposition for Safin. If he triumphs here, it will be his first title since the 2005 Australian Open and as such provides a much needed opportunity to recapture that winning feeling.

With the greatest of respect to Zverev and Kunitsyn, this is really all about Santoro and Safin. Not just because of their greater standing in the game but also because of what Santoro has come to represent to Safin.

In a sense 2008 has been something of a turnaround for Safin; since taking on a new coach he's beaten a top 10 player for the first time since 2006 (Berdych in a Davis Cup tie against the Czech Republic) - this was also
incidentally, the first time he's come back from 2 sets down; he also finally put right his horrendous record on grass with that incredible run to the semis at Wimbledon.

This may be a little simplistic, but I get the feeling that Safin's poor record against Santoro is largely down to his loathing of the irregular. Lets consider surfaces: he's had his best results on a hard court where you don't have to contend with uneven bounces and changes in pace that are such a feature of the other surfaces. Its taken him the best part of his career to put in a good performance at Wimbledon and he's only won two out of his fifteen titles on clay.

Santoro is just about as irregular and nuanced a player as you'll find on tour (can you imagine what Bollietteri makes of his double handed scything forehand!?) and is for all intents and purposes the antithesis of what Safin considers tennis to be about (he'd probably prefer to play Nadal on clay).

However I've got a good feeling about this: Santoro has already signalled his intent to cut down his schedule over 2009, so he may not provide as stiff opposition as he's done in the past. Moreover, getting past an old adversary such as Santoro, whilst also winning his first title in three years is certain to allow him to shed some psychological baggage and may prove to be exactly the kind of springboard he needs ahead of Madrid and Paris (a tournament he's already won three times).

Safin image by Toga


Monday, 6 October 2008

It's Not All Mental...

Tomas Berdych's win over Juan Martin del Potro in Japan this weekend reminded us once again of the immense (but as of yet unfulfilled) promise of the young Czech. Del Potro had won 29 of his last 30 matches going into this final; his only other loss was to Andy Murray at the US Open, whose recent success has taken him to #4 in the world.
Can we now expect a similar upturn in Berdych's fortunes - is he finally ready to come of age?

He's always been something of a conundrum to most people: he possesses all the ingredients that should make him a top 10 player at the very least. He's strong, has a big serve and possesses thundering groundstrokes that should enable him to hit almost anyone off court. He's been likened to Safin many a time: a flattering comparison if it weren't for the fact that he also mirrors the Russian's well documented inconsistency.

I haven't seen enough of Berdych's play (particularly when he's playing well) to form a balanced opinion of him: I missed his oft reported win over Federer at the 2004 Athens Olympics and didn't get to see much of his victory at the Paris Masters in 2005. So in all fairness I may have missed his best spells of tennis.

However I still think its a little simplistic to try to explain Berdych's problems with consistency solely in terms of the mind (how many times have you heard a discussion, or read an article on Berdych that doesn't make use of the word 'headcase'?).

There can be no doubt that he struggles with confidence and belief. He often appears to have checked out mentally, displaying poor body language, especially when his opponent is winning. However he also needs to tighten up other areas of his game if he is become the star that many expect.

My main issue is with his serve; undoubtedly a huge weapon, but can you truly say he's had the success with it that his 6'5" heavy frame would warrant? I say this because I had a similar beef with Andy Murray prior to Wimbledon. He's 6'3 and doesn't have the same stature as Berdych, but through his (now famous) revamped fitness regime and plenty of practice, has managed to crank his serve up to around the 130mph mark, throwing in plenty of aces in virtually every match he plays. Berdych doesn't need to bulk up the way Murray did - a big serve that can dominate opponents, winning him most or all of his service games, should be a given with him.

His other issue seems to be movement; some things you can't change - most players of his size compensate for their lack of agility with powerful groundstrokes which they can use to shorten rallies, and largely dictate play. Again, he has great groundstrokes but they're not providing him with enough insulation against the more aggressive players. Is this all once again, down to confidence? Would more belief in himself really turn things around? As of yet I remain unconvinced, mostly because I've seen a number of matches where he appears to be coping mentally but still fails to display the form we now readily associate with Djokovic or Murray.

This is where I think the comparison with Safin is somewhat misplaced.
When you see Safin play - even on a bad day, you do at least get glimpses of the type of shotmaking that made it possible for him to win Slams. What you see when watching Berdych are heavy, and at times punishing
groundstrokes that are well worthy of a top ten player. That's not a bad thing - its been enough to take him to a career high of #9, but isn't in itself enough IMHO to warrant the next-big-thing type predictions that are often bandied about.

That's not to say he can't reenter the top ten or even crack the top five - its just that the improvements that need to be made are more than merely mental.
Still, this win in Japan, against one of the best players of the year suggest that he's moving in the right direction.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Here Come the Girls...

The women's event in Stuttgart is now well under way and Serena Williams has lost her opening match to Li Na 0-6, 6-1, 6-4.
To say this was a strange match would be like describing
Ivo Karlovic as being of 'above average height'. Although Serena exploded out of the blocks as we've seen her do so many times, she dropped form in equally dramatic fashion, allowing Li Na to raise her level close to what it was in the Olympic Games.

I'm not sure much can be read into this upset other than Serena having a very bad day at the office. Her results this year certainly suggest she's taking her tennis very seriously, so I'm going to hope this is nothing more than a blip, albeit a rather expensive one (its going to cost her the #1 ranking). She was certainly very realistic about the loss of ranking: "To be quite honest I don't deserve it playing like that; I have to step it up and I will."

Besides that high profile loss, the standard of tennis in Stuttgart thus far, has been of an immensely high standard with all of the top players playing close to the best of their ability; to be honest I can't remember the last time that happened.

Bartoli, despite an impressive performance in the first round, went out today in a very one sided match to Zvonareva who is looking better than she has all season. Victoria Azarenka, has been the other player to really stand out. She defeated Radwanska 6-1,7-5 yesterday, who for me is going through something of a Hingis phase in her career: she's one of the best tacticians on tour at the moment, making up for her lack of pace with thoughtful, incisive play, but has recently had a spate of losses to players all of whom hit the ball harder than her - she's still only 19, but you'd think something has to change soon. Read More...


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